International students find hurdles to U.S. employment after graduation

(Photo by Christina Chung)
International students can find barriers and bureaucracy to U.S. employment after graduation. (Photo by Christina Chung)

When I first came to the United States from China, I packed my bags and left home with a one-way ticket to Portland, Ore. To make sure that I really had the chance to learn the language and blend in the American culture, my father sent in an application to Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, a city with 13,000 people — very few of them Chinese.

That small town was my first impression of this country. There was no racial diversity and not one building was taller than six stories. The only way not to act like a “weirdo,” was  to force myself to talk to everyone with my broken English, even when I was uncomfortable. Luckily, this little town, despite its lack of diversity, had the kindest people.

I never felt discriminated or singled out when I was the only Chinese student there. They accepted me as one of them and taught me that “as long as I keep my own essence and work hard towards what I believe in, nothing is impossible.”

For the most part, that was true. I graduated at the top of my class, had two summer internships after graduating from EOU and I went to an MBA program at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

But as I got closer to finishing the MBA program, I had to get a job, otherwise I would have  no choice but to return to China.

My friends in Oregon did not understand why getting a job was so stressful for me. While sometimes I would forget that I was an immigrant, there was an invisible wall that I couldn’t tear down despite my success — a visa to work anywhere in the US.

It was hard for my Oregon friends to understand that for international students, getting a job is not so simple after graduation. Applying for an H-1B visa program — which is how many international students qualify to work — is not an easy process that guarantees anyone a chance to work in the U.S. And unlike what political rhetoric might imply — it is not a program that companies use to find “cheap labor.”

Numerous barriers

There are companies who want to hire international students and are willing to sponsor them through the H-1B work visa.

But their willingness is not the last word —  the U.S. has a limit for the highly demanded visa, which is given through a lottery system.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services accepted H-1B Petitions for fiscal year 2018 from April 3 to 7. The H-1B application cap of 85,000 was reached in four days.

Out of that limit, 6,800 visas are set aside for citizens of Singapore and Chile, as part of the free trade agreement between the United States and those countries.

Over 236,000 visa petitions were submitted before the lottery system was over, so only about 36 percent of the applicants were able to move forward with their H-1B applications.

After years of hard work to succeed in U.S. schools, it comes down to a random drawing.

“There is nothing you can do, really. It’s all about luck,” said Betty Chao, Oregon State University graduate. “It doesn’t matter if you have a good GPA or good lawyer or you have lots of money. It’s all up to the computer.”

Even after getting the H-1B, the stress isn’t over for many workers.

“I am always grateful for the company who is willing to take this risk for me and has the faith in me to enroll me into this visa program,”said Yao Mu, an employed marketing analyst in Renton on H-1B visa. “But sometimes it’s so stressful that I am afraid of making any mistakes. I am in this constant worry that I may be fired if I make a mistake or they will tell me they no longer want to sponsor my visa.”

While nothing about this system has changed for the next year, the concerns and uncertainties have been amplified by President Donald Trump’s administration, which has pledged to increase jobs for U.S. citizens. Last month, Trump signed orders that could lead to work visas being even more selective.

This issue is very important to the Seattle area, which is the third largest export market in the U.S. Seattle’s total export value in 2015 reached $67.23 billion.

One reason for that success, is the area’s diversity, said Kristi Heim, a Seattle based senior director at BGI Group, a biotech company from China.

“To reflect the diversity of the community is to harness the strengths of many kinds of people toward a common goal,” Heim said.  “This is especially important for innovation. Everyone benefits by exposure to different cultures and new ways of thinking. It also makes teams more interesting and dynamic.”

Heim also argues that encouraging immigration benefits more than just businesses.

“Highly diverse communities are most successful when people have equal opportunities and a common sense of purpose. I think of places like Singapore, Sydney, Hong Kong, Silicon Valley and the Seattle region,” she said. “Because of their diversity and openness, these communities will be more robust, innovative and attractive to talented young people who can choose to live anywhere.”

Living in an open and inclusive community like Seattle is a privilege, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Instead, we should take advantage of the inclusiveness and understanding of the community to create a better sense of awareness. Additionally international students should know, the H-1B visa process is nothing to be afraid of. Everything has a degree of uncertainty. If you are an employer, please give a fair opportunity to the international student who has the qualities you seek. If you are an employee, have faith that someone will see your dedication and talent and will help you with what you deserve.


  1. Here’s the non-globalist perspective:
    We sold you an education. You got what you paid for. Why are we in any way obligated to give you employment?
    If you bought a car, would you then demand that you got free gas and maintenance for life?
    Trump’s proposed changes will actually help the truly world-class talent emerging from our universities as well as those coming from abroad. Replacing the lottery with one based on pay (if you assume companies will pay more for better talent) will make it more likely that the most talented people will get the visas. It will also bring the recipient’s compensation closer to the pay scale that would attract a native.
    Ultimately, the pay scale for H-1b should be higher than that for native born. If companies are truly bringing in world-class talent because they can’t find it here, they should be willing to pay a stiff premium for the privilege.

    1. Employment isn’t given, is earned, through years of hard work and persistence. Nobody is asking for “free gas and maintenance for life”, but an opportunity of driving your brand-new car outside on the roads for a while, I’m afraid that I can’t agree with the non-globalists on this one.

    2. Of course. I agree with you. What the article tries to convene is about for those who deserve to have an H1B should be given an opportunity to be considered (whose talent will benefit the community and the country). Fort those who are trying to go through the illegal route should not be encouraged.

    3. Shame on James! US is a place opnng to the world.Jobs belong to the winners of the occupation competition. Native Americans and overseas students in US are equal.

  2. While lobbying Congress for more H-1B visas, industry claims H-1B workers are the “best and brightest”. Come payday, however, they’re entry-level workers.

    The GAO put out a report on the H-1B visa that discusses at some length the fact that the vast majority of H-1B workers are hired into entry-level positions. In fact, most are at “Level I”, which is officially defined by the Dept. of Labor as those who have a “basic understanding of duties and perform routine tasks requiring limited judgment”. Moreover, the GAO found that a mere 6% of H-1B workers are at “Level IV”, which is officially defined by the US Dept. of Labor as those who are “fully competent” [1]. This belies the industry lobbyists’ claims that H-1B workers are hired because they’re experts that can’t be found among the U.S. workforce.

    So this means one of two things: either companies are looking for entry-level workers (in which case, their rhetoric about needing “the best and brightest” is meaningless), or they’re looking for more experienced workers but only paying them at the Level I, entry-level pay scale. In my opinion, companies are using the H-1B visa to engage in legalized age discrimination, as the vast majority of H-1B workers are under the age of 35 [2], especially those at the Level I and Level II categories.

    Any way you slice it, it amounts to H-1B visa abuse, all facilitated and with the blessings of the US government.

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has never shown a sharp upward trend of Computer Science graduate starting salaries, which would indicate a labor shortage (remember – the vast majority of H-1B visas are granted for computer-related positions). In fact, according to their survey for Fall 2015, starting salaries for CS grads went down by 4% from the prior year. This is particularly interesting in that salaries overall rose 5.2% [3][4].


    [1] GAO-11-26: H-1B VISA PROGRAM – Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program
    [2] Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers Fiscal Year 2014 Annual Report to Congress October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014
    [3] NACE Fall 2015 Salary Survey
    [4] NACE Salary Survey – September 2014 Executive Summary

    1. Perturbed Pundit

      Everything has an explanation. And as someone who is an international student, I understand, trust me.

      The reason why the international students that were granted the H1B visa are mostly on entry level jobs is merely because that is they only job we can opt unless someone is a nontraditional student (older) with previous work experience in his/her home country. See, most international students come to the U.S. after high school. So, say 17-18 years old. International students are not allowed to work outside of campus unless a granted a work permit by USCIS (which is very hard to get) only if proven economic hardship which is almost impossible because that student came into the U.S. supposedly with enough money to cover living and tuition. So, not allowed to work, then after finishing the undergraduate degree, students are allowed to get 1 year of work permit or pursue a graduate degree. Say you work that one year, hoping you show your employer that you are worth it in order to convince them to sponsor your visa. If 1 year is enough for them, great, if not not, then you have to go back to school or back home. Say you go pursue your graduate degree, after you finish that you are granted 1 more year of work permit. Unfortunately that first company you worked for was not willing to wait for you to finish your master degree and they hired someone else. Now, you have to start from scratch, finding a new company with only one year of employment to convince them you are worthy. Now, only 2 years of employment is not enough to opt for a executive or even supervisory level position at a U.S. company. And keep in mind, most international students look for companies that tend to hire international labor (this means big companies) because they might have the money to sponsor someone or have done it before. So, normally a large company, with a supervisory level position required 2+ or even sometimes 5+ years of experience. And sadly, we just don’t have that much experience when we graduate.

      I hope I clarified your ideas.

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